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Movie review

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Where the wild things are civilized: Anderson’s wit and warmth lift ‘Mr. Fox’

Characters in Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox’’ include (above) Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), and the couple’s son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and nephew (Eric Anderson) (below, from left). Characters in Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox’’ include (above) Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), and the couple’s son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and nephew (Eric Anderson) (below, from left). (20th Century Fox)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / November 25, 2009

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The wry stop-motion delight “Fantastic Mr. Fox’’ feels lovingly fussed over. With its papier-mâché skies, animal characters sporting glued-on tufts of fur, landscapes that seem to be cobbled together from spit and plasticine, it’s a defiantly handmade artifact - a tabletop movie.

In other words, it’s like every other Wes Anderson film (“Rushmore,’’ “The Royal Tenenbaums,’’ “The Darjeeling Limited’’), just without the pesky actors. This turns out to be critical. By forgoing actual human beings, the director has made his most charming, least annoyingly fey film - a thing of lovely comic wisdom. Other filmmakers turn to children’s stories when they have kids of their own. Anderson seems to have made this one for his inner child.

The movie has been adapted by Anderson and Noah Baumbach (writer-director of “The Squid and the Whale’’) from the 1970 kids’ book by Roald Dahl. It jettisons Dahl’s coolly subversive tone, as well as large chunks of plot, to make room for Anderson’s (and Baumbach’s) usual obsessions: feckless parents, hesitant kids, the endless family struggle between the ones who take and the ones who get took.

George Clooney exudes slippery vocal charm as Mr. Fox, a natty former carnivore turned newspaper columnist (!) who tries to solve his midlife crisis with a raid on the three meanest farmers in the land. Meryl Streep plays Mrs. Fox, anxious when things are calm, calm in times of crisis. Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman is their misfit son Ash, glowering with resentment over a father who hogs the spotlight.

Bill Murray provides the voice of a badger attorney, Owen Wilson a rabbity coach. Willem Dafoe? A rat, of course. Hearing these familiar voices issuing from the bristling, bustling animal forms is one of the daft pleasures of “Fantastic Mr. Fox,’’ which at times feels closer to Kenneth Grahame’s beloved “The Wind in the Willows’’ than Dahl. Like Grahame, Anderson doesn’t humanize animals so much as animalize humans, holding on to our joys and doubts, hopes and delusions, the small daily lies we tell each other and ourselves.

So Mr. Fox hits the henhouses and storerooms of farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean - Michael Gambon gives amusingly splenetic voice to the latter, a rawboned country sharpie - because it makes him feel young again, no longer tied to a desk job and a mortgage on a tree. The adventure blows up in his face, obviously, and an early casualty is Fox’s fine red tail, shot off and turned into Bean’s necktie. “Fantastic Mr. Fox’’ goes further, though, and traces the consequences of one creature’s middle-aged folly until it ensnares the entire forest ecosystem and there’s nowhere to dig but down, sideways, and hopefully up.

Is this really a family film? No more or less so than “The Incredibles,’’ which covered similar psychic turf in a more exuberant, less eccentric fashion. Actually, “Fantastic Mr. Fox’’ rescues the very phrase “family film’’ from an industrial entertainment complex that has warped it beyond all recognition. Anderson deals with generational dynamics - a dad who needs to be forever young, a son looking for the best way to grow up - in a way everyone can access, from kids to grandparents. The movie isn’t funny ha-ha but funny-beguiling, and I think most children will be puzzled and fascinated with it, the way you can be taken with something weird but true.

Which is to say that Anderson’s whimsies work better in this context - with more wit and playful warmth - than in his ostensibly grown-up movies. It’s the small, funky details of “Mr. Fox’’ that stick with you: The way Kylie the Possum (Wally Wolodarsky) has eyes that turn into spiral buttons whenever he spaces out, the mole that plays Art Tatum piano riffs, the single word “cuss’’ that the animals use as an all-purpose expletive, or the way these civilized beasts sit down to meals and rip into them like temporary carnivores.

There’s the moral, if you’re looking for one. Why do we do the stupid things we do? Because we’re wild animals pretending to be grown-ups and grown-ups betrayed by our wildness. (“I used to steal birds, but now I’m a newspaperman,’’ sighs Mr. Fox, and, brother, I hear you.) This is a little further up the evolutionary and maturity ladder than, say, a Wild Thing, but still not far enough to keep us out of trouble. “Fantastic Mr. Fox’’ is a fairy tale for adults that’s gracious enough to let everyone play along.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX Directed by: Wes Anderson

Written by: Anderson and Noah Baumbach, based on the book by Roald Dahl

Starring: The voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, suburbs

Running time: 87 minutes

Rated: PG (action, smoking, “slang humor’’)

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